Review by Edward Rothstein
Review by Edward Rothstein published 8 January 1982 in The New York Times.
Alfred Schnittke is a contemporary Soviet composer who is hardly known outside of his homeland. But like Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner, once his voice is heard, it cannot be ignored. He fixes a listener with a glittering eye and holds him fast until he has had his say. There is no easy way out of the world he weaves.
Schnittke’s Concerto Grosso, for example, opens as if it were a story beginning with a slightly ominous whisper of ”once upon a time”. The toy tinkle of a prepared-piano sounds a plaintive folk tune. The sound is discomforting; phrases are slightly unbalanced; deep bass intonations refer to dark, unspoken matters. Something peculiar is happening, and by the end of the work, when the piano plays the tune again, the ear has been wrenched by a mixture of frenzy, fulmination and farce that includes Vivaldian violin duets, quadruple forte whines from the strings, a quotation from Tchaikovsky, invocations of Bach’s name in notes, the sound of a harpsichord beating out tango rhythms and 21-voice canons that churn with pulsing dissonances.
But during this eclectic melange, the listener is unmistakably hearing the coherent and concentrated expression of a single voice speaking with such conviction and passion that the nightmarish events in its tale cannot be avoided. Consonances are chilling, jests horrifying, graciousness grotesque.
A Program of Schnittke
Last year, Continuum, a contemporary music group directed by Cheryl Seltzer and Joel Sachs, presented the American premiere of the work in New York in a program of contemporary Soviet avant-garde music. At Alice Tully Hall tomorrow night at 8, the group will again present the work, this time as part of a concert devoted to Schnittke’s works. (Tickets are $5 and $7 – $3 for students – or call Centercharge 874-6770. The performers will include Miss Seltzer playing both piano and harpsichord, Mr. Sachs conducting and playing piano, along with Harold Rosenbaum leading the Canticum Novum Singers; Jane Bryden, soprano, and Marilyn Dubow, Geoffrey Michaels and Elisabeth Perry, violins. In the past Continuum has offered retrospectives of such 20th-century composers as Wolpe, Debussy, Cowell, Berg, Carter, Varese, Berio and Milhaud.
Although Schnittke is relatively unknown to American audiences, the 47-year-old composer, the son of a German-Jewish father and a Volga-German Catholic mother, has had a considerable success in the Soviet Union. He has written music for 30 film and stage productions along with seven concertos, two symphonies, oratorios and other works. His travel abroad has been restricted in recent years, but as a member of the Composer’s Union, he has managed to support himself in the unusually independent position of a freelancer. Two years ago in the Soviet Union – which normally eschews expression of religious feeling – Schnittke wrote a Requiem with a Latin text incorporating parts of the Credo; it received an acclaimed performance in Moscow’s most prestigious auditorium. His second symphony is also a religious work.
Part of the reason for Schnittke’s success in the Soviet Union may be his unabashed invocations of tonality and traditional musical styles. The music isn’t difficult; it has an immediate effect on first hearing, sounding either disarmingly simple or insistently harsh. It is easy, for example, to understand the Soviet success of two works on tomorrow’s program – the Three Madrigals on Texts of Francisco Tanzer or the cho ral work ”The Voices of Nature.”
In an interview just after the premiere of his Requiem in 1980, the composer called his own eclectic musical language, ”polystylistics” and said it developed after the infusion of Western scores and recordings into the Soviet Union in recent decades. But ”polystylistic” pastiche would be a Socialist Realist compromise in lesser hands. It is a tribute to the composer’s talents that the music to be heard tomorrow not only goes beyond simple accumulation of musical platitudes, but it also seems a comment upon them. The music makes both traditional and cliched modern styles strange and disturbing, recalling at times, Bartok and Shostakovich.
A Blatantly Modern Sonata
The Violin Sonata No. 2 (Quasi una Sonata), is the most blatantly ”modern” work, replete with tone clusters, microtonal melodies, harsh eruptions, violin versions of Sprechstimme and sighing variations of the ”B-A-C-H” theme. Its tensions are sustained through the most bizarre figurations. Simple motifs are heard amid barrages of dissonance – and are also shown to be at their heart.
The Piano Quintet (1972-1976), less extravagantly anguished, is pure elegy; it is inscribed ”In memory of my mother, M.I. Vogel.” Its long-breathed obsessive dreaminess breaks into cries. It ends with a solo rocking piano line, which like the simple waltz in the work’s center shocks the ear with a sense of belatedness and loss.
The 1977 Concerto Grosso, for 21 strings, harpsichord, amplified prepared piano and two violins, sums up what can be sensed about Schnittke from the offerings tomorrow night. It does not simply reject the styles it plunders; it does not, like early Neoclassical works, treat the musical tradition with irony or detachment or nostalgia; nor does it – as in some of Shostakovich’s works – deliberately do it violence. Instead, the music exaggerates past styles – taking counterpoint or Romantic concerto style or Baroque tuttis or banal tunes or contemporary dissonance or Socialist Realist crudities to grotesque extremes. They are woven together with such formal concentration and harmonic imagination that their jarring contrasts become aspects of a single fantastical world in which each act of expression is threatened, precarious, doomed to frustration. The result is not artifice; we do not sense something being done to the music to make a heavy-handed point; the music is an emphatic statement of the way things are. Schnittke’s compositions then, may be successful in the Soviet Union, but they aren’t being heard too closely.